Nope and the Psychology of Trauma On-screen

“The depth at which we take in the preceding generations astonishes me. There is likely an epigenetic component to this as well as transmission through the internalizations that get passed down through the generations. Whole cultures are carried forward that way, so it makes sense that family legacies might be transmitted that way as well.”
― Bonnie Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships

I finally got a chance to watch a film that’s been on mine and everyone else’s radar for quite awhile: Nope, the newest entry into horror by Jordan Peele. I have several reasons for not having seen it until recently, but simply excuse my lateness. And blame COVID tbh.

However, my friend Sky wanted me to finally see and write about it, and y’all I’m glad she did motivate me on this. This movie hit me hard in all the right ways.

I went in fairly blind to any information (save for this wonderful blog entry by Lemon at The Writing Lich, which I highly recommend reading for an alternative look at what I will be discussing further). I often feel that’s the best way to watch horror films these days, as trailers do give away quite a bit–but praise to Nope for its vague trailers keeping my interest without giving anything away!

Spoilers ahead for Nope.

The trailers, posters, and advertising make it very clear: this is a movie about alien(s). At least on the surface. But like all of Peele’s films, this film has a deep social context and meaning.

Nope, to put it quite simply, is about trauma and the reaction to it. At least from my reading.

Much like the film itself, I’d appreciate your humoring me by going through named sections regarding each character of note that I’ll be exploring.

RICKY PARK

We start with Ricky “Jupe” Park, the former child star turned theme park owner played brilliantly by Steven Yeun. Yeun is a powerhouse of an actor who rarely gets the chance to show the breadth of his abilities in American film–he is still most known here in the US for his beloved turn as Glen in The Walking Dead. A great series of performances to be sure, but nothing comparable in my opinion to his work in Minari and Burning. He’s an expert in micro expressional acting–making even the most subtle of motions carry huge weight. I found a lot of that here in Nope, which pleased me a lot as a fan. Huge shout out, as well, to Jacob Kim who did a wonderful job playing child Ricky Park in flashback scenes.

Ricky as a character is hugely complex. The trauma of being a child star is well documented in our culture particularly through the predatory scum sites like TMZ and predecessors. Add into this Ricky’s frequent experience as being the only person of color on set–something that was emphasized in Ricky playing the “adopted Asian child” in the Gordy flashbacks–and you have a recipe for the subtleties of trauma as it relates to cultural isolation. We never ever hear about Ricky’s parents or biological family of origin. While we do see he grows up to have a wife and children, with whom he shares a wonderful relationship, I think the casting choice of Wrenn Schmidt for April Park was also intentional beyond her being good for the role.

We only ever see Ricky in his relationship to whiteness and things associated with it. Despite the reality of cowboys and the old west being overwhelmingly Black, Latine, Asian, and Indigenous, culturally the Western theme park Ricky owns and operates is a celebration of the Wild West as focused through the lens of John Wayne whiteness, with the only representations of BIPOC presence being the icons of Ricky himself and the complexity of Asian presence (via slavery) in the Wild West being completely sanitized through this.

However, this ultimately brings us to what is undoubtedly Ricky’s biggest source of trauma: the Gordy incident, an animal massacre on the set of a television show in Ricky’s past. Ricky secretly enshrines the massacre in a hidden area of his office, arguably for the money and notoriety with what he tells the Haywood siblings, but ultimately also as an expression of attempting to control his own trauma by caging it within walls he controls.

This makes his arc all the more tragic. We often talk about the repetitive nature of self-destruction via traumatic experience, and I think that is heavily reflected in Ricky’s story. What is more fitting if tragic for the boy who witnessed the utter destruction of his pseudo-family via trying to control a wild animal, than his unintentionally causing the destruction of himself, his wife and children, and his gathered friends and guests, via the same methods?

Ricky ultimately has internalized his trauma inside his own internal hidden chambers that it eventually explodes and takes him and everything he cares about with him. While the reading of Nope as commentary on trauma is subtle but visible in the Haywoods, I believe Ricky and the fate of the Parks and company is the ultimately explosive answer to the question of what happens when we internalize trauma in an unhealthy way without confronting it and attempting the painful road to genuine healing.

EMERALD HAYWOOD

While the scene which makes it explicit text was cut, Emerald Haywood is a messy queer and I am absolutely here for her. She fights, flirts, cusses, and cries, and does it all with a bombast that makes this a near explosive performance compared to the more staid and thoughtful performance of Daniel Kaluuya. Keke Palmer makes the character vivid and imperfect and relatable, and I adore her for that. I will fight for more messy women, messy queers, and messy characters of color on screen that are still celebrated and loved by the text.

This brings me to the character of Em Haywood, whose in-character trauma, I believe, is that she was never quite celebrated enough. At least, not in the ways she needed. There’s a subtlety to the way both Em and OJ voice their own tensions surrounding their father–who was textually a good man, but no parent is perfect.

Em describes, in the scene regarding the original Jean Jacket, a horse she was promised for her own, a sort of unintentional disregard for her by her father. While both Em and OJ seem to understand that it was upsetting for Em to lose the opportunity to train Jean Jacket, at no point did the narrative state (to my memory) that Otis Sr. attempted to make it up to Em via another horse or even via giving the horse to her belatedly post filming-wrap. The fact that she names the alien creature Jean Jacket indicates that even after all this time, it was a negatively impacting event for her.

We do not know explicitly how Em’s father reacted to her queerness, and while I won’t condemn the character via speculation, I think her actions bely as much tension between father and daughter as the tension that OJ holds in his entirely being belies that same ambiguity between father and son. While the narrative never states Otis was a bad man, it does imply there were aspects of his fatherhood that weren’t without fault, and it would be dismissive to say even well-intentioned parenting cannot leave scars. I will not discuss the complex intersections present regarding queer Black female sexuality as I am wholly unqualified, but I’m certain it would play a part in their relationship dynamic.

We still see a lot of love for legacy in Em though, even though it’s portrayed as harried and erratic. Her late entry to the rehearsal combined with her plug for her own career undermine it a bit, but Emerald’s speech regarding the Haywood Ranch’s historical significance is one that clearly is well practiced and loved. This makes the narrative all the more triumphant when her own healing can be seen through the Muybridge inspired series of photos she takes of the alien Jean Jacket with the park’s photo booth attraction. She’s come full circle with reconciling her family’s legacy, while symbolically destroying the thing to come between her and her late father through the destruction of the cosmic creature which tried to take away her remaining family.

This becomes particularly strong thematically as we assume OJ has sacrificed himself in trying to lure the creature away so Emerald can safely get the photographs. Even as she gets the shots, you can still see the incredible emoting of Keke Palmer–she is theoretically triumphant but at the cost of everything that held real value to her.

And then the camera cuts to the entrance and the dust clears….

And y’all I BAWLED I’m sorry to break the authorial voice, but I was SOBBING.

Speaking of OJ…

OTIS “OJ” HAYWOOD, JR.

From the moment he’s introduced as a named character and the white actress questions the safety of having a Black man named OJ around a movie set, we understand that OJ’s trauma is intrinsically linked not only with familial legacy but with how that complexity interweaves with Blackness (and likely colorism as well). He is highly capable with what he does, but we sense and see an intense anxiety with interacting with those outside of a close knit circle.

I don’t necessarily think or know if this was the intention on Peele and Kaluuya’s part but as someone on the spectrum, I sensed a neurodivergent vibe from OJ (and Emerald at times, but less so). Do with that what you will, but it also informs my interpretation of OJ as a character from henceforth.

OJ relied a lot on his father, while at the same time being smothered by the strength of legacy. This can be incredibly traumatic even with the best of intentions on the part of the parents, but it was shown in their interactions that their dynamic wasn’t always the easiest, even if it wasn’t outright abusive. After the death of a figure like that in anyone’s life, but especially a neurodivergent person’s, it becomes incredibly difficult to break the known patterns. OJ’s patterns were following what his father told him to the best of his abilities without breaking from the pattern unless absolutely necessary for survival (via selling the horses to Ricky to keep the main farm and stables, i.e. establishing new situational patterns while maintaining the overarching pattern).

This pattern only starts to break when Em returns, and the alien animal begins forcing them to confront reality. Em drags OJ into something potentially life changing, but OJ doesn’t seem enthusiastic. His spark only truly starts occurring when the horses, the home, and Em are in danger respectively–he is finding that which is truly important to him beyond that establishment of patterns left to him by his father.

It is eventually his special skill that saves his sister and untold amounts of lives via stunt riding. In this not only does he reinforce his own power, skill, and agency, but reinforces (while also reifying) his family’s legacy of Black horsemen. Even as much as I was upset and angry at the film when it was implied that OJ was dead, it made the triumph of his return greater than any ending twist in any traditional Western film I have ever seen.

Like I said, I bawled.

Overall I think Nope was a fantastic film on the surface of it, despite the mixed reviews it received. I think those mixed reviews too may have come from a place of not quite understanding how the layers tie together–it’s always admittedly difficult for even the best directors such as Peele to find the balance between showing enough to the audience for most to understand and absolutely hand-holding the lowest common denominator.

However, I feel the film not only works as an action-sci-fi-horror film along the lines of Alien, The Thing, and many other predecessors, I find it has a lot more to say that’s hidden behind the beautiful photography, acting and character design.

…also I did a little snort everytime someone in the movie said “nope.”

Well played, Mr. Peele.

2 thoughts on “Nope and the Psychology of Trauma On-screen

  1. Sky Yok

    Ahhhh!! But to tie it all in as well the alien itself was to be perceived as a version of a looming demon. The version that Jordan Peele used in the film was perfect as a perception of generational traumas that can also be perceived as demons. The constant reminder in a way that we all must face our demons one day. I love this so review much!!! Ehhhh!

    Liked by 1 person

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